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Becoming a student….again


So it’s been a bit quiet from @ECRhealth …….you might be wondering why….?

Well…2015 saw us both take a leap of faith and start something new… we both became students …again! And I know what you’re all thinking… you’re all looking at this blog in disbelief yelling at the screen…. don’t you already have a PhD?! And then… what else is there to do, PhDs aren’t they as high as you can go? #wtf

Firstly if you are currently an ECR don’t freak out – a PhD is enough, in fact it’s plenty-good! Unless your #multipotentialite self desires more

Some of us continue life long learning, crafting a niche, following your inclinations… and signing up for Master’s degrees.

Whilst this sounds positively blissful, trying something new can be, and is, daunting.

hoop jump

So here are some reflections on our experience and some tips for anyone considering some more study.

  • when you’ve been a teacher/tutor/lecturer going back to study can help you re-visit & develop humility towards your students
  • when you change things up there is a whole lot to learn about maintaining work/life/study balance (cos  it is no longer possible to pull all-nighters or infuse coffee through an IV to keep you going while you finish that assignment #lastminute.com). Find what fills your cup!
  • think about self-expectations and perfectionistic tendencies – Lynsey’s best piece of advice from her 2015 mentor was to consider everything you’ve got on your plate and acknowledge that Ps get degrees (meanwhile Lynsey’s averaging a HD but losing the work/life balancing act whilst Jodie failed a task and had to resubmit and the world didn’t come to an end)!
  • enjoy the feeling of your worlds colliding as you combine knowledge and experiences from past and present work and study (who knew there would be so much psychology in a public health degree?)
  • just jump through the hoops #JJTTH
  • realise that it is easier when you go back to study to focus on content, as the ability to write, format and reference comes more naturally (particularly since that’s what we’ve been doing for the past 5 years!)

And remember ……….it’s an amazing race….. enjoy the process!

Life inspiration

Images sourced from:





Days of Our PhD

Like sand through the hour glass....

Like sand through the hour glass….

(Oliver & Schneider, 2005)
There are a number of issues to think about when embarking on a PhD. Obviously, one must consider a topic, find a willing supervisor (or two), stumble across a scholarship, and learn the negotiation skills necessary to deal with the Graduate Centre. However, these tasks are all irrelevant when compared to the more important issues, such as – finding out about your leave entitlements, pay dates, and locating the nearest water closet, which is often bigger than your closet-like office. The aim of this piece is to review 12 issues (and self-inflicted dramas) we experienced in the first 12-months of candidature.

First Class Frauds
Obviously YOU weren’t supposed to get that First Class Honours grade. Someone in Administration, or maybe IT, has made a heinous mistake and now you must live up to this lie…you are no First Class Honours Graduate – you are a First Class Fraud! How long you maintain this front, will come down to your sheer determination – and when this looks to be failing, use the thesaurus before sending any email correspondence. Fraudulent feelings are often exacerbated by members of the general public, not just friends or extended family, who ask random questions such as: Are you on holidays at the moment? When are your exams? What will you be or do when you finish? So what do you do….like… during the day???????? Do they check? All of these external influences will lead you to doubt many things, and not necessarily just your PhD candidature. However, there is a universal, quick fix, miracle cure for uncertainty about anything in life. This was discovered by the authors early in their PhD lives, and can be explained with one short phrase….When in doubt- Google! (Oliver& Schneider, 2005)

It is likely during your candidature you will face a disaster of some kind usually at a crucial time. Some will face the death of a friend or family member, others a personal injury. For the fortunate candidate your disaster won’t be this serious. It may simply be a construction mishap as a result of the North Terrace revamp, leading to the flooding of the building i.e. your new office!!! This is not the psychological technique employed to cure phobias. This is flooding complete with water and mud! Let this be a timely reminder to always back up any files you are working on.

Searching for Significance
With natural/unnatural disasters behind you, it is time to commence your quest for academic excellence. But, first you must address the fundamental search for significance. Not the statistical significance for which we sought in our data during Honours, but the kind of significance that answers questions such as: Why am I here?
Where is this leading? Is my project worth while? What IS my project?? How will I do it? I’ve never even spoken 100,000 words let alone written them!!! Eventually the voices in your head posing these questions will fade to a dull humming, which could actually turn out to be the boiler room adjoining your office.

Justifying your research/candidature/scholarship
When you have finally convinced yourself of your project and its merits, it is time to formally convince others. This time, your candidature and scholarship depends on it!!!! There are 3 hoops to jump through. Firstly the Research Proposal; this is your bungee cord- it keeps you in the PhD rat race.

Six months into your candidature a Minor Review of Progress turns up, stuffed into your pigeon hole. This is where you draw attention to any disasters/incidents that have impacted on your progress. For example, you had to bring SCUBA gear to Uni to access your office for two weeks, and a gas mask to combat the smell of rotting carpet.
Following this, at twelve months, there is a Major Review of Progress. Ironically, the Major Review of Progress is quite minor, while the Minor Review of Progress is quite major. Never ask questions re: this fact….

To assist you in the review process and to legitimize your candidature, there are a number of avenues available to you. Namely –professional development courses. Ever wanted to brush up on Microsoft Word, or learn how to use Templates and Master documents? Maybe you recoil at the thought of public speaking? Well, look no further than your local Graduate Centre. Be sure to collect the personalized certificate at the end of the session to decorate your office with, and more importantly to add meat to your Review Sandwich.

The Annual review
The Annual Review is another necessary evil. Much like the Minor/Major Reviews, this formality allows you to reflect on the time you have wasted, or used productively- whichever the case may be, and the milestones you have reached and set yourself. It is common for feelings of inadequacy to again creep in here, and you will be sure that your progress will be seen as unsatisfactory. We again kindly remind you to keep breathing, and ask that you use the Annual Review to the best of your ability. Us it as a personal review process, to gauge progress and acknowledge your achievements.

Room for Improvement
You need to seriously consider the exorcism of the spirit of the last [un]successful candidate to inhabit your office. To achieve this, apart from plastering personal development course certificates all over your office walls, you need to add that personal touch. This may comprise photos, postcards, or maybe poster sale bargains. In addition, you will need to scour the corridors for abandoned furniture. Preferably this furniture will be circa 1970’s and bright orange, or perhaps lime or mustard. This will undoubtedly turn your room from clinical/sterile to warm/fuzzy, and hopefully this will equal academic excellence!

Time warp – a warp of time…..
Ever wanted a bomb shelter to play in as a child? The wait is over! Welcome to Level 1 and 2 of the Hughes Building! You are 2 levels below ground, with the weight of 5 levels of academia literally on your shoulders. This is home to most of the School’s rising stars aka the PhD students. Skinner would be proud of the maze of corridors and the consistency of light and dark cycles, air flow, temperature, and humidity. While this stable environment is conducive to productivity, it often leaves you out of touch with the real world. For all you know the weather may have come in, troops from some foreign place may be raiding the Uni Bar, the Fringe could be in full swing, and you would never know. Often you enter the building, sun is shining, birds singing, only to surface and find that it is dark, cold, stormy and desolate. You start to wonder “how long was I in there for????” To further confuse your sense of reality, the time displayed on the computers throughout the School contributes to a five-minute time warp. You only realize this time warp exists when you are five minutes early everywhere you go.

Academics Anonymous Sessions- The Structured Program
For the first semester of your candidature you will be admitted to compulsory Academics Anonymous (AA) sessions. This is part of the Core Component which every candidate is expected to complete. However, it is far more than just a formality. It forms the core of your academic existence. Here you will learn about the properties of a successful PhD tenure BUT in return you must divulge your deepest, darkest research issues. You will be stripped of your dignity in front of your peers…well, perhaps this is a slight exaggeration, but you will certainly address your research shortcomings in AA.

Unstructured Program
In addition to the compulsory sessions offered by the school, you will soon find that there is opportunity to add another entry to your diary. This is the Unstructured program where you weekly meet with other PhD students to thoroughly discuss your week’s research issues, goals, highlights. These groups are generally made up of friends with similar research interests. Some conscientious groups maintain a written record of their meetings in order to track their progress. Other questionable groups do not keep records of their meetings and host them in unorthodox venues- heard of Noodle Monday or Pizza Friday? Neither have their supervisors.

Early Lunch Spells Disaster
Ever felt that time is dragging on? There’s a fair chance that if you have eaten your lunch by 9am it’s not going to be a productive day. Snacking is a great way to procrastinate, so be cognizant of the fact that those hunger pangs could in fact be procrastination pangs. Snack safe, and avoid filling that second drawer with junk food.

Writing your PhD Thesis in 15 coffee breaks a day
Coffee break is to academic as water is to fish; essential for survival and functioning. For a fish functioning is purely physiological but for a PhD candidate, functioning is entirely psychological. The benefit of a coffee break is not in the actual drinking but in the procrastination it provides. Many a PhD student has been brought back from the brink of despair by the promise of a hot chocolate/coffee. Hot drinks of any kind will provide the same solace. The Role of your Soup-ervisor in this case has a dual meaning. While your academic advisor is obviously important, they will never be able to comfort you in the same way as a colleague with a Continental cup-o-soup in hand.

PhD by pub-inundation
While many think it is necessary to compose a dissertation in order to be awarded a PhD, others know that it is possible to be awarded a PhD by Pub-inundation. The foundation of this pathway to success is based on the monthly Departmental drinks. Here you will rub shoulders with those who have made it- PhD survivors! Present will be other wide-eyed, slightly Vitamin D-deprived PhD students, who are nervously trying to act casual in the company of their superiors. Survival tips here include, firstly, monitoring your alcohol intake- no one wants to see a spontaneous karaoke performance of ‘I will survive’. Secondly, chose your spot wisely, sitting between the Postgraduate Coordinator and the head of School is intimidating for anyone in there first 6 months of candidature. Rest assured over time you will discover that they are in fact human and not stupidity detecting machines out to bust you..

We have discussed just a few of the important concerns one will be faced with in the first 12 months of a PhD candidature in the School of Psychology. Initially this time is daunting but you will naturally outgrow this. However some will take time, effort and perseverance- but after all, what else is a PhD about?

Research rewards and relapse prevention

Coming from a psychology background we are always interested in behaviours across population, organisation, individual and personal levels.

We had been trialling a number of different reward options to focus our personal and professional behaviours, to keep us motivated and to acknowledge our successes. Originally this began with a packet of peanut M&Ms in celebration of a particular event/action but when we realised that we were consuming M&Ms to celebrate (or commiserate) the fact that it was Tuesday (or Monday, or Wednesday, sometimes Thursday, and almost definitely Friday), we decided something had to change. While teaching medical students how to guide a patient through a behaviour change, we decided to conduct a similar intervention on ourselves.

Why: to prioritise work-life balance, increase personal meaning and improve our academic research status.

How: reduce problematic research-related behaviour and/or increase beneficial behaviours by the development and application of our tailored Health Researcher (ECR) Psychobehavioural Framework.

We identified that there are numerous Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) across personal and professional domains that needed to be included for a relevant and practical framework.

Points system: identify rewards which were personally meaningful and professionally relevant and allocate points to each goal.

table 1

Box 1

So how are we doing using the framework?

Six-months into implementation; points have been scored, rewards taken- and ideally behaviours reinforced.

There have been some rewards taken including movies, regular lunches, a trip to IKEA, an afternoon of shopping and lunching in the sun, and we’ve accumulated a total of 607 (+ the 200 points we’ve already used) points to date. Accumulating these points has come from things like submitting 7 papers (2 published, 3 under review, 2 to revisit); an application for a Category 1 grant (our first ever, yay!); creating a successful blog; getting promoted; conducting a workshop; reviewing for new journals; regular(ish) gym attendance and very regular lake walking; completing lots of small and medium sized tasks at work (part of our core position descriptions).farm

Some challenges have arisen. The first is to remind ourselves to keep a record of our actions and the second is finding time to enjoy the rewards – why? Let’s reflect on this…

– we’ve had trouble remembering to engage with the framework (maybe because LB wrote it up and has ridiculously tiny writing, perhaps we need a bigger sign so the rewards are always in our faces!)

– the points need to be the reinforcer, so we need to make sure these are scheduled to occur as soon as the behaviour happens (this usually happens in hindsight, on a calendar, on Friday afternoons when we’re struggling to remember what we were doing at the beginning of the week)

– we’ve dropped our smaller rewardable tasks like daily writing KPIs and instead have focused on KPIs which get big rewards. This is a problem because the small ones are effective but are the first to fall off the radar when there are big projects on.

– mentality that should be doing more, better, faster – expectations, cognitive assumption – all or nothing, etc. We need to get better at saying no and sticking to it (earning those 20 points!)

There have been some great benefits – seeing the number rise each week is very rewarding and the reward times we have spent together have been fantastic fun!

Accountability: Because there are two of us engaged in this we feel responsible for earning points (i.e., accountability and encouragement from peers)

Relapse prevention: Need to rethink smaller behaviours – JOB’s suggestion has been a glass jar (not too big) when we engage in 40 minutes writing before any other task first thing on a work morning (one of the most effective things a writer/academic can do) we could add a stone to the jar. Once the jar is full this is a can be rewarded (not sure of the points allocation for this). It might actually be quite a decorative feature for our (new location) office.

Advice for future implementation: Stick with and support your research buddy. Design KPIs that are specific to your role and goals and are relative to opportunity (e.g., if we only work three days a week we are likely to only write three days a week). Reward often and sufficiently – make sure the intensity of the reward matches the intensity of the work. Have fun with it!

When no news is good news in health research (and life generally)

1. School or childcare have not contacted you before midday

2. The manuscript submitted has not been returned to you within 24 hours of submission – good chance its gone for review

3. Error messages – SPSS, Endnote, Word -you name it – no news is good news

4. The mechanic hasn’t called you soon after you dropped your car off to announce that your credit card is going to be sad today

5. Health isn’t mentioned in the budget cuts news article

6. Research isn’t mentioned in the budget cuts news article

7. You’ve requested co-authors to make any final edits to a manuscript prior to submission – and silence

8. The ethics committee’s initial approval notice is the only correspondence with this committee across the course of the project

9. Grants submission portals – either crashing due to last-minute research enthusiasm or when they are up and working they request some left-of-field pieces of bio information from a co-investigator who’s on leave and uncontactable for an extended period in a remote location – happy days when these messages don’t appear!

10. No email calendar meeting requests for an entire day.


Research Sucks: A snapshot into the lived experience of health researchers

To say we are feeling weary is an understatement. Currently there are 4 manuscripts in some stage of draft, rejection or reform, 1 rejected grant that needs reworking, at least 2 fledgling grant ideas which require substantial development if they are ever going to see the light of day, an intellectual property dispute, job uncertainty, authorship conflicts, a raft of new tasks and several collaborators who aren’t on the same page for several projects which require completion in the next month.

The work: wins ratio seems out of whack… and we are only in the 2nd week of the working year!!

Sometimes research is really hard work with minimal returns.

The research rollercoaster is full of ups and downs and while we realise you have to experience the lows to appreciate the highs, we sometimes wish that they wouldn’t all happen at once! The most important thing is how you deal with these challenges and so instead of reaching immediately for the M&M bucket we are trying to be both mindful and pragmatic in our approach.

Strategies to rejig the mindset:
• Catastrophise – yes it’s ok, let it out, cry, yell, carry on, good if you can do this in a safe space, preferably with a closed door and with someone you trust (aka workBFFs). Warning catastrophising with another catastrophiser will result in chaos!! Try to have your meltdowns one at a time – this can be difficult when you are co-authors on a lot of the same projects but take turns melting down and being the sounding board.
• Write a ranting blog but don’t post it (just yet) – very cathartic process, smash it out on the keyboard or in a notebook. It takes a lot of the chaos out of your head and allows you to reflect back on it at a later time. It can also allow you to build a journal/history of when you have found things difficult but kept on striving no matter what – ‘I got through that horrible patch so I’m sure I can get through this too’. Great as a resilience reminder – ‘it might just be okay’.
• Lake walk or the equivalent. On the grounds of our university we have a lake walk which takes about 15 minutes per lap. Some issues take more than one lap! Some laps walks are solo, others with the boss, or with close colleagues.
Note this process may take an hour, a day or a week but it’s important to go through the process.

Practical work-specific strategies can then follow …

Strategies to suit the tasks at hand:
• Step back and make a list of all the separate tasks which were compounding into the meltdown moment. We’ve delegated tasks and we’ve accepted that this is going to be a big year of challenges and exciting new adventures.
• Journal rejection – We have managed to find another journal to submit our paper to (and didn’t receive a rejection within an hour unlike the first time we hit submit!).
• Grant rejection – We’ve signed up for a grant writing workshop to help us navigate the submission process.
• Collaborations – We’ve had a really productive meeting that sorted out the intellectual property issues without any drama and with the other projects we’ve made sure that even if our collaborators aren’t on the same page as us we are all now reading from the same book.
• Authorship challenges – We’ve found authorship guidelines to support our actions.
• Most importantly we’ve promised to strive for awesomeness in the face of uncertainty!

What kinds of tactics do you use to climb out of the research journey funk?